Shaw-ly some mistake

Theatre - Kate Kellaway on an over-acted, under-propped "play unpleasant"

George Bernard Shaw sets the scene for Widowers' Houses as follows: "In the garden restaurant of a hotel at Remagen on the Rhine, on a fine afternoon in August in the eighteen eighties. Looking down the Rhine towards Bonn, the gate leading from the garden to the riverside is seen on the right. The hotel is on the left . . ." Shaw's stage directions read like bossy little novels. How would Fiona Shaw, an actress of unconventional brilliance, respond to Shaw's authority?

The answer is: unconventionally. At the Cottesloe, part of the National Theatre in London, Shaw makes her debut as a director. And from the start, it is clear that she is intent on rebuilding Widowers' Houses, or on pulling them down. There is no Rhine, no furniture, no room with a view. There is a shelf generously piled up with grey sea stones and, behind these, what looks like a large grey parcel wrapped up in string (designer Peter McKintosh). I like sets that jettison detail. But in this case it was absurd watching formal characters trying to make themselves comfortable on bulky shingle for want of hotel chairs.

I loved the beginning: a man looking like GBS himself strolls on stage and, in a comically relaxed and benign way, enacts a peculiar, partial striptease, disposing of his red braces with a flourish, to the sound of an accordion. This is our introduction to Dr Harry Trench, the medical student who seems to regard life as a permanent rag week and who occupies his body with twitching disregard. It is an arresting opening. But I still have no clue of what we were supposed to learn from it, beyond the exact appearance and colour of Dr Trench's undergarments - and the proof that Jonathan Slinger can act.

There is an old joke about books that suffer from "too many words". This production suffers from too much acting. A first-rate cast shows us, irrepressibly, what it can do. The effect is like observing good writers fatally in love with their own inventive imagery - at the expense of content.The production needs a severe or pitiless editor. Fiona Shaw is neither; she has an exorbitant, restless imagination that often distracts from the play.

Widowers' Houses is - or ought to be - an austere piece. It does not need any flying buttresses; it can stand without help. It is about what happens when love and bad money meet. Trench has a modest income, but he can boast aristocratic relations. Blanche is not well-connected, but her father, Mr Sartorius, is ostentatiously rich. Sartorius declares himself content for the match to go ahead on one snobbish condition: that Trench's fancy relations welcome his daughter unconditionally. Trench has not bothered to find out how Sartorius made his money. He is to discover, in the most sensational scene of the play, that his father-in-law owns rotten tenements which he rents out to the poor. Trench is appalled. The plot thickens, or tightens to a stranglehold, when Trench discovers for the first time that his own income is derived from interest on the mortgage of a property owned by Sartorius. He is Sartorius's toy. Trench discovers that it is not so easy to be self-righteous and censorious about the ill-gotten income of others when your own livelihood turns out to be from the same source. Like so many of Bernard Shaw's plays, this is a moral argument made flesh. Shaw filed the piece under "Plays unpleasant", and eloquently unpleasant it is.

Pip Donaghy plays Mr Sartorius. His performance stands out. There is always, even at his most extrovert moments, something withheld by this actor - a mournful look in the eye, or a sense of incipient menace. He brings moral complexity to the part: when Sartorius boasts of being a self-made man, there is anguish in it. There are moments when he becomes jovial - but in a sinister way. When he puts on a kilt and dances, he looks frighteningly kittenish. And Donaghy has a natural sense of timing.This is more than can be said for the production. It begins at manic speed - running away from and with itself, as if slow always meant dull. As Trench's friend, Cokane, Wale Ojo is especially hyper. There were moments when I was reminded of amateur productions where pace is so often a problem. I attended a matinee of Widowers' Houses, and at the interval most of the row in front of me removed itself. One scene, in particular, was the culprit. Blanche (well and intensely played by Emma Bernbach) retires behind a screen of gauze and we see her and Dr Trench's crazy copulation in shadow play. It is clownishly obscene - quite an elaboration on the kiss that Bernard Shaw prescribed. Would GBS see it as GBH? My objection was that it was exhibitionist, part of a production that did not trust the play. And then, unsurprisingly in this production, Blanche becomes pregnant. The text does not allude to it, so we have to rely on telling glimpses of a swollen belly - to cartoon effect.

Gary Sefton plays Lickcheese - the sacked rent-collector who reveals to Trench the truth about his father-in-law. Sefton is superb in this scene. He is vindictive, desperate and impossible to ignore - he has a family to support. Shaw intends that he should return in the second half as a well-heeled blackguard. You would think this transformation were enough. But in this production he is reinvented further as a camp fellow in a little black frock with jangly jet necklace.There is nothing to account for this theatrical indulgence. In the second half, the set has metamorphosed into a glass house with smashed windows - people have been throwing stones. I fear more stones before this production has run its course.

"Widowers' Houses" is currently on tour and returns to the Cottesloe between 8 and 12 February

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The tyranny of the brands